Cranking Out the A's
Henry, an Emory University undergrad, couldn't stay awake. A quick learner, he always put off studying until the last minute. As tests loomed closer, he'd pull all-nighters. But copious cups of coffee didn't do the job to help him cram. His eyes eventually fluttered over his books, and he frequently nodded off.
Henry's solution came freshman year in the form of a pill called Adderall. Prescribed to his roommate for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, the drug kept Henry alert and zipping through his notes for hours. Soon he was hooked.
Now a senior, Henry says Adderall has guided him through dozens of all-night study sessions over the past four years. "My mind focuses on the work," he says, "and my concentration is incredible."
Like Henry, Georgia Tech graduate student Gordon says he takes Adderall every once in awhile to buckle down and "crank out an A." Jayme, a recent Georgia Tech grad, says the now-ubiquitous drug worked wonders throughout her college career.
"It's so great, I can find it anywhere," she says. "Through sorority sisters, people in class, wherever. It's worth paying for, to stay awake for 30 hours and know I'll get a good grade."
Henry, Gordon and Jayme are part of a growing trend among college students, an estimated one in five who pop Adderall without a prescription, according to a 2002 Johns Hopkins study. Many students don't consider their use of Adderall to be abusive because it helps them perform well in school. Henry claims he's seen people pop pills in the middle of class – if you didn't know better you might mistake it for Advil or birth control.
But Adderall, an amphetamine approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1996 to treat attention disorders, can have serious side effects, including heart failure, seizures and strokes – especially when mixed with alcohol or other drugs. After all, it's speed. What's more, college counselors aren't always attuned to the presence on campus of prescription pills, which, for the most part, wreak less havoc than – and don't carry the same stigma as – illegal drugs like heroin or cocaine.
"We see more students that abuse alcohol, marijuana and crystal meth," says Virginia Bell-Pringle, a Georgia State University assistant clinical professor and the school's coordinator of alcohol and drug treatment.
But, according to some, Adderall is just as seductive as those other drugs; though for a different reason.
During his second semester at Emory, Henry says he quickly upped his dose from 10 milligrams to 20. Over the summer, which he spent at his parents' house, Henry went to see his physician and said he was having trouble focusing. He claims he mentioned he tried Adderall and that it worked. Within minutes, Henry had his own prescription for 20 20-milligram pills.
Back at Emory, he found he had pills to spare and noticed that people on campus were clamoring for them, and were willing to cough up cash. Henry says he started selling the pills for $5 a pop; when finals came around, they went for $10.
While at Tech, Jayme says she took Adderall, on average, four times a week. "It helped me sit still for about six hours, which is quite remarkable," she says. "I could write a paper quicker than usual, because all my thoughts seemed collected rather than scattered everywhere."
After a few months, a single pill wasn't working as well, so she upped her dose. She says she took Adderall every day for four months while studying for the LSAT. During the height of her use, she averaged 60 milligrams in a 12- to 24-hour period. That's the amount prescribed to patients with severe narcolepsy, according to Health Square, a consumers' health information website. If a person who's never ingested Adderall took that much, he or she could experience hallucinations, abdominal pain or heart failure, the website warns.
During her sophomore year, Jayme mixed Adderall with Ritalin, another amphetamine prescribed for attention disorders. She says she suffered an acute panic attack, sending her to the emergency room. Doctors attributed the attack to her repeated use of Adderall when she didn't medically need it. Still, she kept taking the drug.
Stephen Holtzman, an Emory professor of pharmacology, points out that in addition to increasing heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature, Adderall's side effects include insomnia, depression, loss of appetite, digestive problems and, for 10 percent to 12 percent of those who try it, addiction.
"Although the amount of Adderall produced is nationally controlled," Holtzman says, "it's very easy for it to be abused and for people to become addicted."
What's more, some students interviewed said they frequently take Adderall during long nights of partying, allowing them to stay up into the wee hours. The toxicology of the drug, Holtzman says, is greatly increased when mixed with booze.
Emory senior Lindsay is one student who tried Adderall and didn't like it. Her first and only experience with the drug turned her off immediately. She began trembling after her boyfriend gave her Adderall to cram for a test. "I couldn't stop shaking, and I threw up several times," she says. "When I finally did try to sleep, I couldn't. I tossed and turned, and it was miserable."
She says she swore off Adderall, due partly to the fact that, unlike Henry, Gordon and Jayme, it didn't help her grades. "I didn't do well on my test the next day," she says, "because I was too busy hanging over the toilet."
But for those whom Adderall keeps focused, the positives seem to outweigh the negatives. "A final in a class might be worth 40 percent of my grade," Henry says. "I've got to take Adderall to study for it and ace the test."